Obama’s Effect on Racism and Test Scores

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Barack Obama’s election is hailed as a step forward in American race relations. Now, researchers are trying to quantify the “Obama Effect” to figure out how it’s changing American culture. One study, reported by the New York Times, found that a test-taking achievement gap between black people and white people disappeared after Obama’s election. In other words, before Obama’s election, white people tended to do better on this test than black people. Now, that gap has disappeared, at least for this test.

The reason why that gap existed in the first place, Jonah Lehrer writes for the Frontal Cortex blog, may be due to a “stereotype threat.” Stereotypes can creep into the minds of test takers, making them perform worse on tests because of the threat, rather than any difference in intelligence.

An inspiring politician isn’t needed to erase that achievement gap, according to the WNYC show Radio Lab. All that’s needed is a simple change in language: When a test is referred to as an “intelligence test,” the gap remains. But if researchers refer to the exact same test as a “puzzle,” or some other word that is less loaded than “test,” the difference goes away.

“The real subtle power of a stereotype isn’t that it prevents you from the thing you want to do,” Radio Lab’s Jad Abumrad says, “it distracts you for just a beat from the thing you want to do. And that may be all the difference.”

Obama’s election could be lowering racism coming from white people, too. Tom Jacobs reports for Miller McCune that biases against black people registered significantly lower after Obama’s election in certain research. Researchers from Florida State University used Implicit Association Tests and found that the participants, 80 percent of which were white, showed no biases against black people, while previous studies showed a preference for white people. The researchers described this as a “fundamental change” in American race relations.  

The post-election test results aren’t all positive, however. Other studies have shown that white people who expressed a preference for Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008, also expressed a preference for hiring white people over black people. That same preference didn’t come up when the participants expressed a preference for John Kerry.

“The researchers conclude that endorsing Obama helps people establish their ‘moral credentials’ as non-prejudiced people,” Jacobs writes, “and thus makes them more comfortable expressing opinions that could be regarded by some as racist.”

Sources: Miller McCune, Radio Lab, Frontal Cotex, New York Times

Image by hyperscholar, licensed under Creative Commons.

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